Some roads are better than others. Photographer: Jerome Vallette/AFP/Getty Images
Some roads are better than others. Photographer: Jerome Vallette/AFP/Getty Images

The human race faces a huge quandary: The economic growth required to support increasing living standards around the globe will, if we continue with current practices, inevitably put the planet under extreme and unsustainable stress. The case of road construction shows how the process might be managed -- and how difficult it will be to do so.

Global population and economic activity won’t keep growing as they have since the Industrial Revolution. If they did, the ever-accelerating path would lead to absurd infinities somewhere around 2050 or 2060. Growth will hit natural limits well before then: We'll either destroy our environment, or we'll learn to act very differently. As the late computer visionary James Martin wrote in his book "The Meaning of the 21st Century," what's needed is a revolution in skills and means for managing the consequences of our explosive technological growth so people can keep improving their well-being while also preserving the planet.

Consider the relatively simple challenge of building roads. Humans have already laid some 30 million miles of roadways and are on course to build about 20 million miles more by 2050, a 60 percent increase in 40 years. Almost all will be built in developing nations and regions of huge biodiversity. New routes are today penetrating many of the world’s most precious surviving wildernesses, including the Amazon, New Guinea, Siberia and the Congo Basin.

This activity is a perfectly understandable response to human needs. Industry is seeking valuable resources such as timber or oil, farmers are clearing new land for crops, governments are trying to make transportation and trade easier. Unfortunately, there's far too little coordinated effort to reduce the environmental impact. As a result, wildlife habitats will suffer huge losses and ecosystems will be destroyed, ultimately undermining Earth's capacity to support human life as well.

New research by a group of environmental scientists suggests that better coordination could go a long way toward avoiding this disaster. The key is that vast tracts of settled land, where ecological damage is already significant and probably irreversible, still aren't very productive. Better access to fertilizers and modern farming technologies would greatly boost the productivity of such areas, thereby reducing the need for development in more sensitive areas.

The researchers have produced a global map showing places on Earth where new roads or road upgrades could have big human benefits, and others where little benefit would be expected despite large environmental costs. If countries worked together, such information could be used to guide road building over the coming decades, helping to preserve the fragile biosphere without compromising beneficial economic growth.

Such a global zoning plan would allow building to take place in an intelligent way. Inevitably, of course, it would also mean that some local interests would have to give way to global demands. Governments, individuals and firms would sometimes be constrained by the needs of the greater whole. That's what coordination implies, and it's what we need if we're going to preserve our world and still boost agriculture to meet the global demand for food, which will likely double by 2050.

Will it happen? The prognosis is not good. Politicians are too focused on the next election -- and often too corrupt or beholden to local economic interests -- to think globally and for the long term. For many conservatives and libertarians, any step toward even minimal global governance seems to produce near hysteria, even when it's obviously beneficial. Markets aren’t likely to help much, either: Research has shown that they're not good at reflecting the costs and benefits of events that might happen 10 or more years in the future. Humans are naturally inclined toward inaction in the face of great uncertainty.

The challenge is the same for handling the biggest looming problems of global growth such as climate change and water supply. Instead of turning inward and closing off, humans need to cooperate and coordinate on an unprecedented scale. In essence, we're in a race to learn fast enough to avert our own demise. If we want to win, we'll have to change strategy soon.

To contact the writer of this article: Mark Buchanan at buchanan.mark@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.